[Viewpoint] The winner takes it all

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[Viewpoint] The winner takes it all

‘To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,” thus starts “Auguries of Innocence” by the English poet William Blake. The verses came to mind while contemplating a recent social hubbub. Even a trifle can reflect life’s truths.

I’m talking about the “loser” phenomenon. It all started on a popular TV talk show on which local female college students were invited to chat and share views with young female foreigners living in Korea. Talking about eligible dates, one speaker from the local group said she would never date a short guy. Anyone below 180 centimeters (5-foot-11), in her opinion, was a “loser.” The comment flashing out in captions stirred a commotion in the studio and viewers outside. The Web community immediately hit the roof, exposing the student’s personal details and hounding her with inflammatory outbursts. The producers of the program were replaced and a number of men filed for compensation, claiming the comment has caused them psychological injury.

To start with, I have to agree the female student’s comment was inappropriate. Even if she read off the script as she claims, an educated adult like her should have thought first before blurting out such a contemptuous comment on a national TV program. The producers were equally indiscreet. They could have seen the uproar coming, yet they played it up by accentuating the comment in a flash caption. Scandals help viewership, but in this case, they have clearly overstepped the line.

From a sociologist’s point of view, this case mirrors two disturbing aspects of society. First of all, we have the rude awakening to the merciless, and all-consuming nature of cyberspace. There is a certain mechanism on which the Internet jungle runs. Once prey falls under its radar, invisible hands immediately go to work, rummaging and exposing every bit of personal information. Then his or her past comments and actions are spooned out and edited to hype the current ugly picture. Outright denunciation of an individual then stirs an opposite group at the polar end, leading to a vicious verbal war between the two sides.

How far these events play out can vary depending on the issue. But usually, after a spasm is released through a verbal battle, the scandal dies down and dissolves into oblivion. Someone then wraps up the case with a textbook judgment that we need more protection on privacy, reinforcement of ethics and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to uphold decency in cyberspace. Without exception, once an item is chewed up, it is spat out and flushed down the drain.

Second, we come up against society’s obsession with appearance. Our society’s addiction to appearance has long gone out of proportion. Even as we ruminate over the “loser” controversy, we see ads popping up, enticing high school graduates to undergo plastic surgery. This is a society that encourages cosmetic makeovers for a better job and marriage opportunities and esteems good looks as criteria as important as a good education.

Of course we are not the only society engrossed with physical appearance. Money and the way we look are perhaps at the zenith of their significance in recorded human history. Money and body are our passion, raised to the level of deity. It’s a sad but irrefutable reality that we have become so shallow. We shamefully have to admit our flesh is a resource and we need to upgrade the body.

But these currents like the age of information or passion are irreversible. The entire civilization is staring at the irresistible tide of image towering over truth, body over spirit, passion over value, and efficiency of outcome over the sweat behind process.

Our future is not yet hopeless. But we need at times to stop and look around to see where the wave is sweeping us. Philosophical brooding about the meaning of life is ongoing.

“The winner takes it all, The loser standing small, Beside the victory, That’s her destiny.” This 1980 ABBA song rings a stabbing note even today. That winner takes it all is the universal principle and the rule for today’s globalized world. Yet, to see this strange and unfamiliar world in a grain of sand heaves heaviness in one’s heart.


*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Kim Ho-ki

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